The chaplain’s tool that Joe Biden knows and you don’t — listening, not convincing

There’s a meme going around the internet that says that, in the wake of his big election loss, Trump is undergoing an unusual path through the five (or some say seven) stages of grief, vacillating rapidly back and forth between only two of them — anger, denial; anger, denial; anger; denial.

It’s a good point — that Trump does not appear to be progressing towards the acceptance that is supposed to be at the end of a healthy grief process. But here’s the thing. Many liberals also seem to be stuck in anger and denial in the wake of their own big electoral disappointments.

The New York Times op-ed pages, for example, are full of pieces adamantly refusing to engage in any self-reflection and instead doubling-down on blaming the supposed moral bankruptcy of Trump voters. Wajahat Ali, for example, starts his NYT piece with the words, “I give up”. He’s talking about the notion that it’s worth reaching out to Trump voters and seeking to empathize with them. Ali claims he did that extensively since Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. “I told my speaking agency to book me for events in the states where Mr. Trump won,” he writes. 

Yet, upon closer examination, there’s little sign that Ali was actually interesting in empathizing. Rather, he judges his effort a failure because not one person he talked to “told me they’d wavered in their support for” Trump. That is, if he didn’t convince somebody to change their vote he judged his listening effort to be a failure.

One of the first basic listening skills I learned as a chaplain is that it’s possible to affirm, or validate, you’ve heard what another person has said without agreeing with them. Trust me, when I was working as a chaplain in a hospital in Berks County Pa., a place with its share of Confederate flags and right-wing voters, I heard patients express many things that I, especially as Jew, did not agree with. But I listened. I tried to understand. I tried to see what it looked like from where they were sitting.

Why? Well, as a hospital chaplain it was my job. But it’s also my spirituality, my theology — I deeply believe that the only true path to making the world a better place is to make each person feel like there truly is a place for them in it, that their pain and suffering is heard. And that they are free to express their joys and to seek to live their lives to the fullest. It’s only when people feel heard that they will be willing to listen. It’s only when people feel heard that you can move towards righting deeply ingrained injustices.

Call me a naive idealist if you want. But I think Joe Biden thinks that way, too. He knows you don’t have to agree with people in order to move towards national healing by helping them to feel heard. I think he knows that you can still fight passionately for what you believe in without making the person on the other side feel demonized. That’s the only way to rebuild the basic trust in institutions and government that’s been so damaged in recent decades, no more corrosively than in these four years of Trump.

I wish the New York Times would learn some of that value of empathizing. I was amazed, for example, to read a piece that didn’t seem to include any effort to understand the position of average Myanmar voters in their granting a landslide recently to the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, the writer focused on how the leader has lost her “halo” among people in the West.

I don’t want to defend Aung San Suu Kyi’s misdeeds — which, as they include countenancing genocide,  seem far worse than any that Trump (or for that matter, Netanhayu) has ever done. But I’m still appalled by the writer’s failure to say anything about how “her popularity at home has endured” even as she has “squandered the moral authority that came with her Nobel Peace Prize”. Seriously, what hope do we have of ever convincing people to respect the human rights of others if we never even talk to them — only to people like us? 

I’m hoping for a better world. I’m more specifically hoping for a better Israel, one that is both free of Netanyahu and that is on a true path to a peace with the Palestineans. But the refusal of so many on the left here (yes, I’m talking to you especially, the journalists at Haaretz) to even try to show some compassion and understand the motives of Netanyahu voters makes me lose hope. If you’re one of my liberal US friends who bothered to read this far in this piece, my guess is you’ve never even heard of the latest rain in rockets from Gaza. But Israeli voters know. And many of the are still bearing emotional scars from the murderous terrorist bombings of the second intifada. It’s the scars from violence old and new that help Bibi remain in power.

Trump, however I’m happy to say, will be gone come Jan. 20. We voted him out. But he, or his successor, will be back come 2024. If we want to win that election too we have to start listening now. Luckily, Joe Biden appears to know that.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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